Two-State Twilight

PeaceFor many years, I have felt that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were an exaggeration. Yes, Israel has been unyielding in its expansion of settlements in the West Bank in clear violation of international law, effectively dividing the already-slight territory into several isolated segments and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible. But Israel has withdrawn settlers from occupied territory before, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Unlikely as it may now appear, it could always happen again.

The above represents the optimistic perspective I have traditionally held. With every passing year, it becomes harder to maintain this optimism. Israeli settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) currently number around half a million — far more than anything Israel has ever removed before. I do not know exactly how close the settlements are to a point of no return — or indeed if they have passed that point already — but what seems obvious to me is that if the two-state solution is not yet dead, it is clearly dying, and every decision to authorize or excuse settlement expansion in the West Bank diminishes its chance of full recovery.

This is the only lens through which to understand last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote granting Palestinians “non-member observer state” status. While Israel occasionally claims to be in favour of some form of two-state solution, as soon as the moment came to put its money where its mouth was, the country led a small number of other rejectionists (shamefully including my own Canadian government) in voting against Palestinian statehood. Then, in retaliation against Palestine for its victory at the UN, Israel announced plans for new settlement construction in a move that will further carve up the West Bank.

The occurrence of these events mere days after Israel concluded its brutal assault on Gaza and agreed to a truce with Hamas is especially disturbing. According to Palestinian parliamentarian and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti:

What worries me most today is that Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians that if you do non-violence, we will oppress you. If you do the most peaceful, non-violent act of turning to the United Nations, we will punish you. But if you use violence and guns, we will respect you. That’s the message that Palestinians are getting, and that’s a wrong message.

Furthermore, in addition to hurting Palestinians, Israel is hurting itself. If the two-state solution becomes impractical, Palestinians and their international supporters will not simply roll over and accept the eternal occupation of Palestine as a fait accompli. Rather, they will demand (and who can blame them?) voting rights in Israeli elections for all living under Israeli sovereignty. The two-state solution will die and be reborn as the one-state solution, featuring equal democratic rights for all people — Jewish and Palestinian — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For most Israelis, this is a nightmare scenario. I am not quite so pessimistic.

Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together make up a natural social and economic unit, and if one accepts the right of return for Palestinian refugees (as anyone who believes in the universality of human rights must), then the pre-1967 borders are a rather arbitrary place to draw the partition line. The only good reason to defend the two-state solution is that it remains the path of least resistance. Majorities or pluralities among Israelis and Palestinians support two states, as does virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, after decades of violence and hatred, there may be some utility in at least temporarily giving each population its own state.

For these reasons, I have always supported an interim two-state period to allow tempers to cool, but have remained hopeful that eventually, after years of reconciliation, a single binational state might emerge.

Naive? Who’s to say? What is obvious, however, is that Israeli intransigence on settlements is eclipsing any possibility of an intermediate stage. A time will soon come — if it hasn’t already — when one state is the only choice left.

Montreal Gazette Letter

Joel Lion, Israel’s Consul-General in Montreal, wrote an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette detailing the virtuous lengths Israel goes to in order to avoid civilian casualties in its unrelenting bombardment of the Gaza Strip. At the urging of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, I submitted a short letter to the editor in response, which the Gazette was kind enough to publish on its website. Please click here to read my letter. It is succinct and — let us say — snippy.

Live From Gaza

Nothing cuts through the bullshit quite like live footage.

The following comes inadvertently from a CNN interview conducted with a Palestinian in Gaza and an Israeli in Ashkelon. I will let the video speak for itself:

An Open Letter to Israeli and Palestinian Hawks

Israeli Apartheid Week artwork

Dear Israeli hawks:

What are you thinking?

I realize that you consider every destructive, civilian killing, infrastructure shattering air raid you launch on the impoverished people of the Gaza Strip to be an act of self-defence against the terrorism of Hamas and other militant groups, and that every cheap rocket fired at you from the Strip represents an existential danger. You have even managed to convince most of the mainstream media (at least in North America) of this rocket-and-retaliation narrative. But reality is considerably more complicated.

Forget for a moment the near impossibility of determining who “started” any given Israeli-Palestinian flare-up. If we wish to rise above the proverbial cycle of violence in search of root causes, we are left with three explanations: the blockade of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, and, to a lesser extent, the refugee crisis that has been ongoing since 1948.

Your blockade, enforced with Egyptian assistance, has never limited itself to purely military concerns. The import of fuel and construction equipment is heavily restricted, and your government has at times reportedly counted calories to determine how much food to allow into the Strip. From day one, the intent was to strangle the Gazan economy and pressure its long suffering civilians.

None of this excuses Palestinian violence, but the importance of these issues must be acknowledged. Context matters, and so does scale. As of this writing, the death toll from the current escalation is at least forty on the Palestinian side and three on the Israeli side. This ratio is fairly standard.

It is therefore incumbent upon you to accept an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and bring an end to the blockade of Gaza.

Dear Palestinian hawks:

You are not helping.

I realize that the humanitarian crisis brought on by the ongoing blockade or siege on Gaza fosters anger, desperation, and extremism, but you need to recognize that you will never defeat a nuclear-armed, American-backed regional superpower militarily. Not only are your constant rocket attacks ineffective; they are positively counterproductive. They produce an unreasoning impulse for revenge among Israelis no less than Israeli strikes do among you.

Furthermore, in addition to the above strategic considerations, any act of violence against civilians is morally reprehensible and a war crime. This applies both to your actions and to Israel’s. I do not mean to present a false equivalence; it is not even close. After all, context matters, and so does scale. But a death is a death is a death. Crimes cannot be justified simply because the other side is doing it more.

It is therefore incumbent upon you to accept an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

On Israel and Apartheid

Message on a wall at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Last month, university students and activists around the world marked Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual series of lectures and protests designed to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians. As usual, the condemnations were heavy and hyperbolic. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, obscuring the purpose of the events, used the opportunity to urge “all Canadians to reject anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance.” In 2010, Ontario legislator Peter Shurman commented, “The use of the phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested, and I’m not certain it doesn’t actually cross over that line.”

To equate the mere mention of the phrase “Israeli apartheid” with anti-Semitism is just as absurd as charging Islamophobia whenever someone rightly accuses the Saudi Arabian government of gender apartheid. Surely it should be possible to discuss issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their merits rather than just scoring points with debate stopping allegations.

Israel’s more rational defenders tend to point out that contrary to how South African Blacks were treated under apartheid, Israel’s Arab citizens are allowed to vote, run for office, and participate in the judiciary. But this red herring neglects the most appropriate target of the apartheid analogy, the Occupied Territories. Despite being forced to live under Israeli sovereignty for more than four decades, the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have no citizenship rights whatsoever. They are ruled by Israel without the benefit of being able to elect their rulers. And in a striking throwback to the original spirit of apartheid (which literally means “apartness” or “separateness” in Afrikaans), Palestinians are barred from the notorious “Israeli-only” roads, reserved for settlers, that criss-cross the West Bank.

In Israel proper, even though the apartheid analogy begins to break down somewhat, the system still might be termed “apartheid lite” on account of what is widely regarded as the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs. Yes, they do have de jure political equality, but they are subject to endless racial profiling and chronic municipal underfunding. The semi-governmental Jewish National Fund bars Israeli Arabs from leasing or buying its landholdings. And while Jews like me, even those who have no connection to the country, have the right to travel to Israel and immediately claim citizenship under its Law of Return, Palestinian refugees — many of whom were born in what is now Israel before being expelled in 1948, many of whom still have the keys and deeds to their houses — have for decades been denied their own right of return.

All this being said, the term “Israeli apartheid” may now have outlived its usefulness. The analogy remains essentially apt. In fact, many veterans of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, such as Desmond Tutu, have noted the similarities. Sadly, however, it is not enough to be right. Israel’s apologists seem to be winning the public opinion war (at least in Canada), and reliance on the “apartheid” label may be doing the Palestinian solidarity movement more harm than good. Due perhaps to the habitual insularity and PR myopia of the activist left, Palestinian supporters have allowed their foes to disingenuously define anyone who applies the word “apartheid” to Israel as an irrational extremist.

So in the interests of effectively engaging those who currently sit on the fence, the time has probably come to think up some new rhetoric. Or better yet, to forgo flashy rhetoric altogether and just let the facts — which are damning enough on their own — speak for themselves.

Update 11/05/2012: This post has been reprinted here on

Pushing the Envelope on Palestinian Sovereignty

Map showing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in re...

There has not been much movement of late on the Israeli-Palestinian front. This may  partly be explained by the relative lack of violent activity by Palestinian groups. The conflict has dropped off the radar for most of the Israeli public, and the only constituency the government needs to worry about is that of the far-right pro-settler parties which hold the balance of power and effectively wield a veto over any potential moves towards territorial concessions. In other words, the political calculus of the Israeli government currently favours doing nothing on Palestine.

By contrast, if Palestinians were to reintroduce violent tactics in a major way, the conflict would certainly return to the forefront of Israelis’ minds. However, the political mood would not be one of peaceful accommodation, but one of revenge and bloodlust — especially if militants were to target civilians as they have in the past. And that doesn’t even touch on the obvious moral considerations.

So how do Palestinians move forward with their legitimate aim of self-determination given the apparent damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t circumstances in which they find themselves? I have a humble suggestion. In addition to diverse methods of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience (which some research shows to be more effective than violence), I would like to see them employ a strategy of asserting their sovereignty not just in the UN, but in Palestine itself.

They could establish a security force that is unified, disciplined, and democratically accountable — one that is operated and supported by the long sought-after Fatah-Hamas unity government. Ideally on the heels of an official UN recognition of the state of Palestine (but not necessarily, in case this bid fails), the security force could announce its sovereign authority over all the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem — including all Jewish settlements, Israeli military installations, and coastal waters off of Gaza. And once they are prepared to escalate from talk to action, carefully choosing the appropriate target at the appropriate time so as to minimize the chance of bloodshed, the security force could move in and attempt to arrest any soldiers or settlers who are found to violate laws passed by legitimate Palestinian institutions.

They would almost certainly fail in carrying out these arrests given the obvious imbalance of power. But just the attempt, in all its rich symbolism, and the professionalism with which it is undertaken, could generate publicity and awareness, demonstrate how serious Palestinians are about their lengthy quest for self-rule, and win over converts to the cause in Israel and around the world. If it is intelligently executed, their negotiating position in peace talks could strengthen dramatically.

I am not aware of the Palestinians ever having used a tactic like this before (if any readers have information to the contrary, please do let me know). It does not automatically solve every problem, nor does it even begin to tackle the crucially important refugee issue. But Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories have been seeking freedom for decades, with remarkably little to show for their struggle. Their political and humanitarian plight is in desperate need of attention. The tactic I recommend is at least worth a try.